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Friday, May 16, 2014

A Quick and Dirty Guide to Genres

Knowing what category your novel falls under is imperative in the querying process. Not only do you need to identify your novel to be able to talk about it and the audience in the right way, but you need to know where it fits just to be certain that you're talking to the right people.

This seems like it should be easy enough. And I say "seems" because I recently had an eye-opening revelation. My YA/NA novel is apparently not so YA/NA as I had previously thought.

My protagonist is 22-23 years old throughout the novel and a mother. I always knew YA was a big stretch, but NA felt right. Until I went through the critiquing process and almost everybody told me that it didn't fit. That got me thinking: how many others are out there talking about their novels in the wrong way?

That's when I decided to make you a Quick and Dirty Guide to Genres. This guide isn't intended to just explain genres to you -- I knew what the genres were and still got my novel wrong. The guide is designed to help you, as writers, categorize your work. Can you take this a little loosely? Sure, why not. But it's here to help you, and hopefully to unseat any misconceptions you have about your own work. It is not all-encompassing -- it is, as the title suggests, quick and dirty.

Without further ado:

A Quick and Dirty Guide to Genres

Science Fiction
Typically set in the future, science fiction looks at that which has not yet been or that is not yet discovered. Frequently involving aliens, space travel or futuristic technologies, science fiction tends to find its roots in plausibility -- although the genre itself can vary greatly from hard sci-fi to space opera.

Speculative Fiction
With some firmer guidelines to lead us along, speculative fiction has a lot in common with sci-fi (and can even be interchangeable). Speculative fiction is one of those genre categories that can sound a little bit like you have your head up your butt, so be sure if you're using this category that you're using it appropriately. When you can say "sci-fi", I encourage you to just say sci-fi. Speculative fiction has a tendency to come off as ... apologetic. Which can be annoying to an agent who actually looks for science fiction. That said, this term has some solid applications. Most dystopian novels fall into this category, which is defined by the question "what if?" If your novel hinges on "what if?" (ie -- What if all people were divided into factions based on a single trait? What if Pride and Prejudice had zombies? What if the Nazis has won?) then speculative fiction could be a comfy home for your novel.

Ah, fantasy. My dear, true friend. You are a nebulous, frustrating thing. The words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart come to mind: I know it when I see it. In fact, that's a pretty good tool to use for sci-fi, too. But it's not helpful for our purposes. Some fantasy is easy to identify. Are there elves, vampires, hobbits, orcs, fairies, faeries, dragons, nymphs, pixies, unicorns, magic, witches, talking gingerbread men, etc? Then it's pretty much definitely fantasy. Unlike science fiction, fantasy tends to find its roots in the implausible. Fantasy will have an element of, well, fantasy. Something unreal, something that we only imagine or know to not be true or believe to be impossible.
Urban Fantasy
This is ... not my genre. So I'm gonna try to keep this short and accurate. Urban fantasy is a fantasy novel (elves, dragons, warlocks, vampires, what-have-you) existing in a realistic urban world. Frequently, these novels will take place in a real city -- such as New York -- and the world will look a whole lot like our world with some fantastical beings sprinkled in and causing havoc.

High Fantasy
And here we have the traditional fantasy genre: high fantasy. In some ways, the antithesis of urban fantasy. To define high fantasy, I have a simple guideline for you: Tolkien. He's pretty much the Supreme Mugwump of high fantasy. This fantasy genre takes place in a world that is completely made up, usually in a setting predating electricity, guns and personal hygiene. Frequently, these will include a lot of walking and descriptions of nature, and some really boring songs. That said, just because you world is invented doesn't mean it is high fantasy. High fantasy has come to define a very particular invented world, in the Tolkienian vein.

Often conflated with smut, romance can have a lot in common with this sexually explicit counterpart -- in fact, it can be just as explicit as smut. The differentiator is that romance has some feels in there too. Involving two or more characters pining after one another, often with some sort of physical or societal roadblock keeping them apart, romance is about yearning between people.

Paranormal Romance
And then there's paranormal romance, which is about yearning between a person and something else. Werewolf, angel, vampire, elf, ghost, faerie ... what you will. Paranormal romance shares common roots with urban fantasy (there is a high overlap) but adds in the sexy, yearning feelings to hook the primarily female and frequently (but not exclusively) teenage readership.

There's something afoot, and your protagonist is there to figure it out ... if there are a lot of "dun dun dunnnns" in your novel, then you may be writing mystery. Mystery presents a problem or a riddle to the reader that they need to figure out alongside your protagonist. These tend to be real page-turners that rely on withholding information to keep your story going.

Now take your mystery novel, and instead of the "dun dun dunnns" have some slow violins eerily playing over the background. Do you feel like someone might pop out at you and yell "boo!" at any moment? Then you've written a suspense novel. Typically, suspense relies on an element of dramatic irony -- a character, frequently the protagonist, is in danger and the reader is aware of the threat even though the character is not.

And when we come to thriller, we throw that subtlety out the window and are just running from danger. Your character has gotten involved in some dangerous hijinks and is not only trying to get to the truth or expose the plot, they're running from bullets as they do it. One thing a thriller cannot lack is tension and action.

A mystery novel, with a little more focus. Crime novels typically star detectives or cops. They are out to solve a crime and bring a killer/thief/terrorist to justice. An amazing offshoot of the crime genre: hardboiled

Historical Fiction
Self-explanatory? Sure. Historical fiction is a made-up story that involves a historical figure, event, time or place. The important bit is that it shouldn't just take place in another time -- there should be some significant historical marker to qualify for this genre.

Women's Lit
Oh, women's lit! Your very name makes me a little angry. Don't get me wrong, I like you. I read so much of you. But the very implication that there is a whole genre that can only appeal to women, presumably because it is about women and relationships and, you know, GIRL STUFF, makes my skin crawl. And your other nom de plume ... chick lit?? Don't even get me started. I'll admit, when I was told my novel qualified less as YA/NA and more as "chick lit" ... I felt punchy. But the bonus to women's lit is you have a built in audience of about 50% of the readership. How do you know if you've written women's lit? Well, you'll have a female MC (almost definitely) and your piece will focus on female relationships. No Bechdel Test fails here. You treat women like fully-fledged human beings, and apparently there's a whole genre just for that rarity.*

If fantasy can have vampires and werewolves and ghosts, then what is left for the horror genre? Well, horror can have all those things, or not. Horror can be realistic, fantasy, sci-fi, thriller ... and on and on. What makes horror horror is the emotional response. Horror is designed to horrify, to terrify, to scare ... and, unfortunately, to disgust. Yes, I'm showing my bias. I never claimed I wouldn't. Horror can bring up a lot of different emotions, primarily negative, meant to shock the reader's system with some fear adrenaline.

So, here's the sad trombone for the day, Writers of Genre Fiction. Agents pretty much never consider your sci-fi/fantasy/mystery/horror novel to be literary fiction, no matter how smart, high-brow or poignant it may be. Sucks, doesn't it? I'm sure we can all think of examples of "genre fiction" that merit the credit of being "literary", but that's not how this works. When an agent says they only accept queries for literary fiction, they are looking for general fiction (not genre fiction) that has a high brow flare -- fiction for English majors, not the rest of us plebs.** 

My primary regret as a writer is my inability to write humor. Humor is a skill that is often undervalued in literature, while at the same time being extremely difficult to master. I remember my dad telling me as a kid that it was harder to make a someone (a reader) laugh than cry -- and he was absolutely right. So if you are a humor author, I applaud you. You know who you are: you're the person who uses words to make people laugh, chuckle, giggle, guffaw or even just give a knowing smirk. This genre frequently is occupied by spoof pieces, lampoons, memoirs and collections of observations/anecdotes. 

How is drama not just literary fiction? Because drama can be high-brow, low-brow, or anything in between. Drama defines itself through its ability to elicit tears and gasps, and relies on characters for emotional response over action. It can be as melodramatic as daytime tv soaps or as refined as Madame Bovary.

New Adult
Now we're exiting into slightly different territory. That's why these next categories are in gray scale instead of rainbow. See what I did there? I'm setting them apart. Because these are technically not "genres". These are age categories for your readership. But, tomato, tomato. ****
New adult is defined less by content and more by intended audience. This category refers to novels intended for readers about 18-30 years old. Protagonists tend to be in a similar age range, about 18-25. This "genre" is still defined by content in part, though. MCs are typically facing questions of identity, in a sort of modern bildungsroman that targets the millennials*** and speaks to a sense of finding purpose while in a time of transition. 

Young Adult
The YA audience is intended to be teenagers, typically younger teens. However, I've read statistics that over half of YA novels are actually purchased by adults. I'm not surprised. I'm one of those adults happily devouring every new Tamora Pierce book, the Hunger Games, Divergent -- all of it. Still, you can't categorize your novel YA just because you want to. MCs will typically be under 18 years old. In my experience, I would say 16 is pretty standard. Perhaps your MC is in high school, or some equivalent for your world. You get the point. You're writing about teenagers, and (hypothetically) for teenagers.

Middle Grade
Your audience is around 7-12 years old, and your MC is about 10-13. These books tend to be shorter than YA (around 100 pages or so) and feature characters trying to figure out who they are more than they are trying to figure out the world. 

These are for the little ones. 8 and younger, depending on the reading level of the individual kid. Let me say that good children's books are deceptively hard to write. There's a ton of variety in this generic category, because your average 4-year-old is going to have vastly different interests and reading ability than your average 7-year-old.

* Bitter much? Yes, a little.
** Yes, I was an English major, but that's beside the point.
*** Sorry to throw this word out there, I'm sure you're all sick of hearing about millenials too.

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